Family at home wearing protective masks using digital tablet.

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Job losses, financial problems, people being confined to homes during lockdown, sickness and the death of loved ones all brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted negatively on marriages and family life in T&T.

The T&T Psychologist Association (TTPA) confirmed this based on a hotline the association set up in 2020. This is not just a phenomenon in T&T, however, it is happening globally. Even before the pandemic, there have numerous cases of domestic violence and other problems in marriages, but the lockdown seems to have worsened the situation in some cases.

Marriage and family therapist Nichelle Dottin-John said given the problems in society, these negative outcomes are inevitable.

According to an article on website health.clevelandclinic.org in February of this year, the American Family Survey (AFS), the first major survey of family dynamics since the pandemic began, found that out of 3,000 Americans who participated, 37 per cent of men and women reported that the pandemic increased stress in their marriage. This was mainly due to economic hardship.

There are similar surveys and stories worldwide.

A BBC article last December showed that a survey by the UK Charity Relate in April 2020 found that nearly a quarter of people felt lockdown had placed additional pressure on their relationship. A similar proportion had found their partner more irritating, with women reporting so more than men. A further survey by the Charity in July 2020 found eight per cent of people said the lockdown had made them realise they needed to end their relationship.

Right here in T&T, there have been reports of disruptions in homes.

Locally, experts said that new couples being forced to spend more time with each other at home can hurt their relationship, family life and mental health.

President of TTPA Wendy Jeremie told the Sunday Guardian by email that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused “major disruptions” to family life.

“There are many challenges associated with families spending extended periods of time at home together. Husbands and wives cannot tolerate each other, tension rises and there is too much stress and confusion. Some husbands and wives were constantly quarrelling, others lost self-control, some picked a fight without a cause, some lost jobs and experienced financial difficulties.

“After all, work provides us time structure, it provides us identity, it provides us purpose and it also provides us social interactions with others. When that is lost, many difficulties arise.”

She noted that some people find joy in attending work because they do not want to face situations they have been running away from at home. They find happiness at work when they are out of the house, away from their families where they become agitated and irritable and this can give rise to violence.

Jeremie referred to the TTPA’s initiative when it launched its Hotline on March 24, 2020, which revealed that many people were anxious, frustrated, depressed and that there were disruptions to family life. Due to COVID-19, husbands, wives and children, families were made to spend a vast amount of time together in the same place at home.

“As a result of this, tensions arose with regard to having to take care of children who were also at home, there was a lack of social connections, routines were disrupted, anxiety escalated and husbands and wives vented their frustrations on each other.”

She recommended ways in which couples could cope with each other during these times.

“Husbands and wives must make some effort to be in each other’s company or spend some time together away from their children, to see and hear each other and be intimate. When they do this, they must not have their cell phones or tablet or computer within reach to distract them. They must be able to discuss matters to devise plans in which there is cooperation by both parties and this depends on what each can do. With this collaboration, their lives will run smoothly with regard to the attention given to chores at home by each party, to the children and the duties each must perform for better living during this pandemic.”

She also recommended that couples communicate with each other more to solve problems and if these problems continue, couples should seek professional help.

“Long before the pandemic, marriages always had problems. However, because of the many stressors that came with the pandemic, for example, job losses and financial constraints, this exacerbated marital problems, which is worrying. Therefore, again, it is absolutely necessary for husbands and wives to seek professional help to work through the problems which may arise during this time.”

Signs of relationships in decline

Apart from her private consultancy, Dottin-John is also affiliated with Wise Counsellor Associates based in Woodbrook. She said that not all the problems that couples were due to the pandemic. Many people were encountering problems before the pandemic, she said.

Dottin-John said couples with problems fall into two categories, those with problems before the pandemic and those who developed problems during the pandemic.

“The fact that people are spending extra time together will increase stress. It is like too much togetherness. There is a lack of privacy. Then you are dealing with financial hardships as well. These factors within a confined space can wreak havoc on any marriage. It will put pressure on a relationship.”

She said the signs of a relationship in decline within these new confined spaces would be more arguments, physical fights, domestic violence and more conflicts.

When relationships reach this stage, she said couples must seek solutions such as counselling.

“In order to mitigate any escalations of those signs, they must agree to look at counselling. They should look at therapeutic interventions.”

One of the ways in which couples can solve their problems is through communication, she said.

“People don’t know how to talk or respond to each other. People don’t know how to bring things down to zero as opposed to the other way direction. People must go back to a place of being kind and compassionate and showing love. People must know how to manage conflict.”

Businesses, stores and restaurants have closed and people have limited spaces outside the home, so she said it is important for people to find spaces within the home to have privacy.

“Find these spaces and do things to cultivate your own spirit. This involves listening to music, playing games and doing other activities. Couples can have date nights again. You can’t go to TGIF or any restaurants, so cook a meal at home and spend time together.”

She also said that the pandemic is a little over a year old and it is a relatively new phenomenon and the statistics are not available as yet, but she forecasts that as long as people are restricted in one space too long these types of marital problems will grow.

She also advised couples to take care of their mental health in the way they take care of their physical health.

If this is not done then there is the possibility of domestic violence and partners in relationships and marriages hurting each other, she added.

“People find themselves in deteriorating levels of mental health. So when we fail to recognise the signs that we talked about, we fail to practise communication, we fail to do the little things that lead to being compassionate, then people find themselves in a place where they are overwhelmed and they don’t seek help.”

While there are debates about if relatives should get involved in the marriages of others, she said that people should at least be their “brother’s keepers” and look out for signs of how bad the situation is and offer help.

She also advised men or women who may be experiencing intimate partner violence to come out and share it with someone as in reporting it to the police or a relative or friend.